The Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Seven Corporal Works of Mercy: Church Wall Paintings Database

A searchable database of British wall paintings

Introduction | About the Project | Frequently Asked Questions | Schema | Initial Findings | Imperfect Parallels: Discussion | Brief Citations and Bibliography

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Good man surrounded by the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy. West wall, Trotton, Sussex. c. Trish Steel/Geograph.

Good man surrounded by the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy. West wall, Trotton, Sussex. c. Trish Steel/Geograph.

And there ys peynted wythunne and over,
The dedly synnes sueyn
There was peynted wyth thyngys sere
That men mygt mewse on many a yere
Le Bone Florence of Rome
(a Middle English Romance of c.1475-1500)

Introduction

Wall paintings of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy were popular in Britain from the fourteenth century to the Reformation. As the extract above suggests, they were not simply decoration but were intended to provide material for contemplation. These paintings were among a group of ‘didactic’ or ‘morality’ images prominent in British wall painting in the later Middle Ages. Other contemporary ‘morality’ subjects included the Seven Sacraments and the Warnings to Gossips, Swearers and Sabbath Breakers.

Morgan and Arthur
Morgan le Fey shows King Arthur wall paintings of Lancelot. (F.W.Fairholt, ‘Mural Painting as a domestic decoration during the Middle Ages’, JBAA, IV (1849), 99)
The lists of the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Corporal Works of Mercy had different origins and were not exact opposites (see Frequently Asked Questions and Imperfect Parallels). However, they were often depicted together or in the same scheme and this is the rationale for this project. The database covers the churches which appear to have contained both types of image. In addition there are about thirty further churches where only the Sins were shown and over twenty with only the Works; given the intrinsic vulnerability of wall paintings, some of these churches may originally also have had paintings of both subjects. Most of these paintings are in England, with two examples in Wales. Nearly all are in parish churches.

Some wall paintings survive in relatively good condition, but others are fragmentary. Some lost paintings were carefully drawn and recorded before being covered over or destroyed, in other cases a few brief lines are the only record. Several of the paintings in the database have deteriorated since they were first uncovered, sometimes as the result of waxy coatings applied by earlier restorers. For this reason, the Bibliography aims to provide a comprehensive list of antiquarian sources, as well as more recent references.

More about the project

This project was established under the Seed Corn initiative of the University of Leicester in 2001, and remains hosted as a research and teaching tool.

Its purpose was to produce a searchable database as a resource for further research, undergraduate teaching, and for those involved in the Medieval Research Centre.

Glamorgan
The Seven Deadly Sins (detail,), St Cadoc’s Church, Llancarfan, Vale of Glamorgan. Late Fifteenth Century.
The database and accompanying notes constitute a self-contained work, of potential interest to those working in a range of disciplines, such as social history, Middle English Literature, ecclesiastical history and gender studies. For this reason, efforts were made to integrate textual material, in particular diocesan records, didactic literature and sermons, with the visual evidence.

The project was a pilot to formulate and test the efficacy of such a database as a means of systematically recording and presenting murals. The intention was to make the information susceptible to interrogation and interpretation, and to store and present these images of wall paintings to a wider audience. This project was the first systematic study of wall paintings at an English University other than the Courtauld Institute and was the first project in England to explore the potential of IT as a tool for studying widely distributed medieval art works. It drew inspiration from the magnificent database and iconographic index of Danish wall paintings, constructed by Professor Axel Bolvig of the Institute of History at the University of Copenhagen.

The database drew on the standard works of reference for late medieval painting and new material gathered by Dr Miriam Gill in her doctoral work. This is augmented by the excellent holdings of Leicester University Library. The database combines photographs with nineteenth-century records, an invaluable source for wall paintings, at present dispersed in a wide variety of journals.

The project built on the specialisms of Professor Phillip Lindley, Head of the Department of History of Art and Film, in the study of late medieval sculpture and renaissance sculpture and Professor Greg Walker, former director of the Medieval Research Centre in the drama and spectacle of the same period. The project also received the interdisciplinary support of colleagues in other departments. In particular it complements the work of Dr David Parsons, formerly of Archaeology on church architecture, Dr Elaine Treharne of English on the presentation of women, George Ferzoco, formerley of Modern Languages on preaching and of English Local History on the cult of saints (Dr Graham Jones) and the nature of late medieval parish life (Dr David Postles).

The researcher, Dr Miriam Gill, was a doctoral student of late medieval English wall painting at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She was attached to the Department of Conservation of Wall Painting, whose Director, Professor David Park, is also responsible for a long-running and comprehensive survey of English wall paintings. Dr Gill is also grateful to Professor. Maddy Gray of the University of South Wales for her help with the paintings at Ruabon.

This project would not have been possible without the unfailing support and advice of Alex Moseley and the Learning Technology Group, who were instrumental in its design and presentation.

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